Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s documentary takes a close look at the beautiful and sometimes brutal world behind beauty pageants and Durga Vahini training camps
There are unnerving moments in both worlds. There are I shocking moments in both worlds and I think controversy, people are scared of it here. And so anything that has a whiff of it – people are drawn to it and at the same time they’re afraid it
The World Before Her ripped the covers off two hidden worlds in India when it premiered in 2012 in New York.
Documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja was the first to get permission to shoot inside a Hindu nationalist Durga Vahini training camp. Her film revealed not just the hateful chants and weapons training young women undergo in the camp but also the courage and humanity of some Durga Vahini members.
Pahuja also filmed the Miss India pageant boot camp, switching between unnerving scenes of young women learning to use rifles and girls being pressured into having botox injections.
As the narratives unfold it emerges that women in both worldsface heart-breakingly similar struggles: a lack of opportunity in India’s male-dominated society, constantstruggle for empowerment and even female infanticide marboth worlds.
In June, Pahuja’s filmfinally got its Indian premier, years after it won best documentary at Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It went on to become the most successful documentary ever for PVR, the only major Indian cinema chain to show documentaries.
The Indian Sun caught up with the Canadian expatriate to find out why she wanted to show her film in India now and the difficulties she went through getting it screened.
When did you decide you were going to bring your documentary to India?
I didn’t have this burning desire to have the film released in India. That wasn’t the original plan. I decided that the film had to come to India after the Delhi gang rape. That’s when it became really important for me.
I knew that it wasn’t just that I wanted to release the film in theatres but I felt that it could really be used to sort of spark a conversation. In North America with documentaries now, what we’re doing is, it’s called social impact. Like what is the social impact that a film can have? How can we actually use documentaries?
So in 2012 after the Delhi gang rape I felt I’ve got to do something with this. And then, close to 2013 and up until like March of this year I’ve been laying down the groundwork, finding partners in the NGO community and feminist groups and working out a strategy.
Was it difficult to bring the film to India?
Getting it out has been very kind of problematic. Because the film is seen as controversial and it’s actually not, that’s the irony of it. It’s not controversial in that it’s not a sensationalist film. So it doesn’t take sides. It’s actually really balanced. It was really important for me to present the world and the people in the film as they see themselves and not necessarily as I see them. So it shouldn’t be controversial. But I think a lot of people are afraid that it could be.
There are unnerving moments in both worlds. There are I shocking moments in both worlds and I think controversy, people are scared of it here. And so anything that has a whiff of it – people are drawn to it and at the same time they’re afraid it.
How did you get the initial idea for the film?
I came to India for the first time in 1999 and I was here doing research on a film that I was working on at the time called Homeward Bound, which was about NRIs like myself who grow up outside of India, NRIs who have dreams of coming back to India to try to become film stars. I was invited to a party that was celebrating a woman, an Indian woman who had just won the Miss World contest in London. There was this euphoria in the media and you know just all over the press. People everywhere were celebrating this young woman winning an international beauty contest. It was almost like an Olympic athlete bringing home gold. There was this bizarre sense of nationalism and sexuality. It was really, really telling, it meant something, and I thought it would be a very interesting idea to explore.
Once I started to do more research into beauty pageants in India and I started to read about the opposition to them, then the film started to take on a slightly different shape and I knew that I needed to incorporate the voices of opposition. And in India those voices are basically Hindu and feminists. And so that was the intention. But then Prachi Trivedi, the youth leader in Durga Vahini told me about the camps and that’s when I thought what I really need to do is try to get access to these Durga Vahini camps.
What are you planning next with The World Before Her?
With the Indian theatrical release of The World Before Her a success, and screenings increased to more cinemas on demand in the second week, Pahuja is now planning the next step for her cinematic creation. She plans to dub The World Before Her into regional languages and tour it in rural India to raise awareness about women’s issues.